Sports Outside the Beltway

One Month In – The April Baseball Update

On field performances took a backseat in the final weekend of major league baseball’s first month. The untimely death of Cardinals relief pitcher Josh Hancock cast a pall over a rather extraordinary month of early season baseball. Cardinal fan Wil Leitch of the site Deadspin offered a touching remembrance of Josh, which captures the relationship that fans have to the men who play the games they love.

The relationship that we, as fans, have with the athletes we follow is as genuine as it is bizarre. Not a single day has gone by since Opening Day 2006, when Hancock first appeared on the Cardinals’ roster, that he has not been on our mental radar. We cheered him, we cursed him, we forgot about him, we repeated the process; he occupied a real place in our lives. We did not know him, and we were not particularly curious to do so; if he got batters out, he made us happy, and that was enough. His sudden departure — shocking, horrible, insane — makes us feel as if we have lost something that we never realized we had. We want to go back and cheer harder for him, forgive his mistakes more easily … treat him as human in a way we never did as a mere fan. He shifts from middle reliever to human being only in death; this can drive a fan mad with guilt and confusion.

But we did not know him. Many did, in far more depth than our parents’ fleeting encounter 10 days ago. To those, he was never a middle reliever. He was just Josh, quiet, friendly, reserved, living the contradictory life of a Major League Baseball player who toils in relative anonymity. We cannot pretend to have known him, or to understand the anguish of those who did. We can only know that we have lost something small but real, and hope and pray that those who lost more than that can find some sort of peace.

I encourage you to read the rest.

Returning to the exploits on the field, Mark Buehrle and Troy Tulowitzki both joined very exclusive baseball fraternities. Buehrle hurled the 16th no hitter in White Sox history.

Mark Buehrle became the first White Sox pitcher since Joe Horlen in 1967 to throw a no-hitter at home, and the first in USCF [US Cellular Field] history. He was tantalizingly close to pitching the 18th perfect game in major league history. A 5th inning walk to Sammy Sosa was the lone blemish on Buehrle’s pitching line, and he would erase the baserunner two pitches later by picking Sosa off of first base.

Tulowitzki turned the first unassisted triple play since Rafael Furcal nabbed a line drive touched second and then caught the runner retreating to first base. Only the thirteenth such play in the 107 seasons since 1901, but the fifth since 1992. David Pinto has the details, plus a the link to the list of all 13 unassisted triple plays.

Troy Tulowitzki turns the rare unassisted triple play against Atlanta. His play prevented Atlanta from scoring in four straight innings, and the Braves ended up losing in eleven frames 9-7.

Baseball’s leaderboard at the one months mark has a few surprises. The Brewers, a fashionable spring training pick to win their division are proving to be fashionable, leading the six team division, with the defending World Series Champion Cardinals five and a half games off the pace tied with Houston and the Cubs in the cellar. In second place the Pirates, even with Adam LaRoche and his abysmal batting average. Cincinnati can’t decide who they want to be, contender or pretender. Check back in a month and they may still be a game under .500, and still vacillating on competing.

The new-look Diamondbacks are pacing the field, in the NL West, a division that only two seasons ago almost didn’t have a team over .500. This year only the Rockies have won fewer than they lost. The Dodgers, Giants and Padres are all chasing the youthful leaders.

Atlanta is enjoying a revival in the NL East, with the Mets keeping pace with them. Florida and Philly are off the pace, but both have enough talent to make a run. The Nationals are as bad as advertised, illustrating that just because a team plays in RFK doe snot mean that baseball has returned to the Nation’s Capital.

In the junior circuit, The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Orange County, California, USA, Earth, have won eight of their last ten to sit atop the heap in the West. Oakland’s solid rotation and regular second half dashes keep hopes up in the other city by the bay. Seattle’s collection of aging-veteran-has-beens and youthful rushed-to-the-majors-never-will-bes are keeping Ichiro company in what might be his last season in Seattle. Texas rounds out the field in what may be the weakest division in baseball.

The Central by contrast looks to be the strongest. Kansas City is scuffling, again, for what the fifteenth straight year? Meanwhile Cleveland has gotten off to a good start, showing the promise of the team that nearly hunted down the White Sox in 2005. The Twins and Tigers, last season’s central division post season participants are both a game and a half back. The White Sox are a game further behind. The ChiSox have to worry about the slimness of their run differential at this point. At one game over .500, their record is a little better than it should be with a 95-97 run scored versus runs allowed ratio. And remember Buehrle’s no-no night also feature multiple homeruns from Jim Thome (now on the DL) and a grand slam from Jermaine Dye.

Finally, baseball’s overhyped division, the American League East. The Red Sox are off to a hot start, behind a very stingy pitching staff. Their combination of good pitching and acceptable hitting has them ahead of the Blue Jays, Orioles and Devil Rays, oh and the last place Yankees. With the talent that New York has, they are unlikely to remain cellar dwellers for long, but the potential Vesuvius that is George Steinbrenner has let it be known the play of the Yankees to date has been unacceptable. Heads may roll in New York, which would spell the definitive end of the calm years of Yankee success that began in 1995 and produced the great Championship teams of the late 90′s. Teams, that featured homegrown stars and complementary role players and unlike the current Yankee incarnation did not have the bloated payroll, and aging all stars at every position.

May begins with a full slate of games tonight. And baseball’s season continues forward.

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